In mid-1967, the first of four 46-man contingents from the Royal Australian Navy’s Helicopter Flight Vietnam were flown into Vietnam and attached to the U.S. Army’s 135th Assault Helicopter Company. Each Australian contingent served about a year before most of its members were replaced by another group from the Australian Fleet Air Arm. The combined unit was based at four successive camps in South Vietnam: Vung Tau, Blackhorse, Bearcat, and finally Dong Tam—all within 50 miles of Saigon. Fully integrated into the 135th, these navy fliers briefly supported the Australian army, then for their last three years in country supported American and South Vietnamese operations, ferrying troops into hot landing zones, piloting gunships in support operations, and generally living and dying in a war that was as unpopular in Australia as it had become in the United States. By the time the company disbanded in June 1971, 44 of its helicopters had been shot down, and some 532 had recorded one or more hits in a particular sortie. Five of the 180 Australians in the 135th died in Vietnam, while 32 of 1,250 Americans in the unit perished. Two lieutenants of the Australian helicopter unit (equivalent in rank to U.S. Army captains), Ian Maxwell Speedy and Robert Ray, painstakingly compiled the written memories and photographs of the members of the flight, as well as those of many of the Americans in the company, and self-published the collection in A Bloody Job Well Done (2008), from which the following was adapted.
Leading Seaman George “Joe” Ralph, door gunner (2nd RAN contingent, September 1969 to October 1970): We had Viet Cong shooting from all sides and in the flare lights we could see them running all over the place. I remember one—all he had on was a pair of blue shorts and some shoulder ammo belts, and he was firing that AK-47 at us as we passed the side of the fire support base. There was a road that leads up to the base through the barbed wired, and he just stood there shooting like there was just the two of us and nothing else mattered. The gunship was firing miniguns on the main road in front of the base, sending a stream of red into the Viet Cong running away. But this one VC just stood there and shot at us as quick as he could. To me it was like slow motion. I could see into his eyes and he was looking into mine, or so it seemed.
But all too quickly I had M-60 bullets heading his way and as he just kept firing, I watched as my bullets passed through him and behind, kicking up a spray of dirt in that flickering light. It seemed forever before he fell down, still firing.
Today, that is the thing nightmares are made of. So it went on until all movement ceased.
Lieutenant Max Speedy, pilot (2nd RAN contingent, September 1969 to October 1970): Our tactics were fairly simple. We took an infantry company of about 100 men into a landing zone [LZ] with our 10 Slicks [the decks of these Hueys were “slick” because the seats were removed to accommodate more troops and they carried no armaments]. If the enemy made contact and those men were not enough for the task, we went back and brought the next company into the same landing zone, regardless of what had happened on the first lift. Sometimes this was necessary; the troops had to be supported, and landing somewhere else may have put them and us into greater danger. The North Vietnamese Army soldiers were excellent, and clever. They usually waited until the first of the troops were on the ground, committing us, before opening fire. That way they guaranteed we would have to come back, making the chances of downing another chopper all that much better.
If we went into a hot landing zone, we could spend the rest of the day bringing in more troops, getting downed crews out, doing medevacs, and at the end of the day, bringing the troops back home to guard their roads and man their forts. We never left until the action was completed—no respite regardless of how many hours we had flown or whether the aircraft was overdue for service. We kept going while the aircraft would start. If an aircraft was downed and a spare was available, we got it into the action. Sometimes we had the luxury of a 16th aircraft beyond the 15 we had to provide every day. If a downed crew was unhurt, they flew or were flown back to Bearcat for the spare and rejoined us whenever they could. Then we had our aircraft back for maintenance and repairs, and a got late meal if the cooks hadn’t already closed up for the night. And then much drinking—in fact, vast amounts of drinking.
Sub-Lieutenant Jed Hart, pilot (2nd RAN contingent, February 1969 to October 1969): In those early days, everyone had to make an adjustment, because it wasn’t the same as anything that we had experienced before. After two or three weeks—and bear in mind I had arrived in the middle of a very busy Tet Offensive—I decided I was going to be killed before the year was out. It just seemed the most likely outcome. Funny enough, once I had faced up to that, I enjoyed the flying immensely. My fellow pilots and crewmen were good company; we had helicopters to command and a really intense job. The trick was to learn fast, do the job well, and develop the knowledge and style of an old hand. I wrote a “Dear John” letter to my American girlfriend, sent some very untruthful letters to my parents about being in a safe place and not to worry, then forgot about the free world and adjusted my expectations and behavior to the accepted ways of the Vietnam War.
Sub-Lieutenant Robert Kyle, pilot (2nd RAN contingent, September 1969 to October 1970): We new boys were to fly as copilots (“Peter pilots,” in the U.S. Army vernacular) in the UH-1H troop Slicks for about a month so we could adapt to combat conditions. My first combat assault was almost my last. One of seven Slicks, we went into a supposedly cold LZ; I was flying from the right-hand seat and was in the flare about 10 feet above the ground, coming to the hover, when the enemy opened fire. The aircraft captain in the left seat calmly told me to continue the landing. We came under fierce automatic-weapons fire (AK-47 and bigger caliber) from several directions and took more than a few hits: A round pierced the neck of one of the troops in the back of our aircraft—a U.S. Army first lieutenant who bled to death in a matter of moments. The bullet pierced his carotid artery, carrying away a good part of his neck, and arterial blood spurted everywhere, including the cockpit, drenching me and the captain; a liter or so of blood even found its way into the Plexiglas chin bubble beneath my feet, where it sloshed about in a most disconcerting manner.
Another round passed through the cockpit and nicked the lens cover of my movie camera, which was sitting on the top of the instrument glare-shield. We were on the ground for only a few seconds—it felt like an eternity. I imagined that I could feel the hits we were taking. My world shrank to a cacophony of sounds, a frenzy of activity frozen in time, and the rush of exotic smells: I heard the door gunners shooting; the frantic medley on the radio as mayday calls mixed uneasily with tactical reports; the background beat of wide chord rotors slapping the air as the gunships we had called came rolling in; and the crump-crump of 2.75-inch rockets exploding in the rows of nipa palm trees along the edges of the LZ.
The VC were shooting and all I could do was concentrate on forcing that Slick onto the ground, pausing to allow the troops to disembark, and then carefully taking off. Thirty seconds of pure terror, yet appearing to remain calm under fire was essential. We left three Slicks crashed and burning in that LZ. But it wasn’t over yet. We had to return with reinforcements several times because our troops on the ground were surrounded, outnumbered, and outgunned. The gunships had caught the Viet Cong’s attention too. By the time a Scout and Cobra fire team arrived from another company, we had lost two gunships to enemy fire.
Returning to the LZ for yet another assault and almost on the ground, I saw a VC pop up from a spider hole to the right, less than a stone’s throw away, and fire a rocket-propelled grenade at us. Incredibly, it missed my aircraft and detonated against the main rotor gearbox of the Huey on my left, causing the rotor to spectacularly and permanently separate. The UH-1H fell to the ground from a height of about six feet; the force of the crash popped the pilots’ doors and spread the aircraft skids. The crew was out in a flash and broke sprint records getting to our waiting aircraft. Several minutes later we were headed in to land in the relative safety of nearby Ben Tre airfield.
That’s what gave flying in Vietnam such a surreal aspect—one moment all hell was breaking loose, then just a few minutes later you could be in an officers’ club sipping a mint julep or at least a cold beer. After shutdown at Ben Tre, we discovered that an enemy round had damaged our rotor system for good; that put us out of the fight for the rest of the day.
Speedy: In our year, the 135th flew 35,025 hours and each of our 31 aircraft sustained significant damage an average of eight times—though we didn’t count bullet holes unless they had hit something important. The rotor blades could and did take hits without too much trouble, provided they were in the trailing edge behind the main spar. Hits in the main spar were much more serious, although we couldn’t know this until we shut down. Sometimes we had to force our way into a tight LZ; provided it was done with the tips of the rotors and going at the tree branches sideways, we could cut down some impressive limbs and not have to change rotor blades. I think it was U.S. Warrant Officer Bob Anders who showed me how to do this one while I was his copilot in my early days in Vietnam—a very noisy procedure as the blades whacked into the branches, and bits and pieces of tree went everywhere.
Our maintenance people were fantastic. They worked in the most rudimentary conditions: At night, out in the open most of the time, they changed engines, balanced rotors, and adjusted fuel control units under torchlight and in the rain and the dust. Bullet holes were riveted over, if time permitted, or taped. There wasn’t much time to work, between our late arrival home and the next day’s 4:30 a.m. pre-flight inspection, when it started all over again. The maintenance platoon’s aircraft, when it wasn’t on duty with us, was used to scour the country for spare parts, trading on a “one of these for two of those” basis. We were very careful every time we inspected our aircraft; parts could be, and sometimes were, stolen.
Able Seaman Frank Eyck, mechanic/door gunner (1st RAN contingent, May 1968 to October 1968): I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who realized early on that the nature of our war did not lend itself to achieving specific goals, such as taking hills, sinking ships, or shooting down enemy aircraft. Body counts were the only measure of the allied success in Vietnam. We could read about it in every issue of Stars and Stripes. It seemed almost comical to some of us that the only sure way to identify an enemy was to wait until he or she took a shot at us. It made sense not to trust anyone not in uniform. I now realize that this attitude, combined with the very young age of many allied combatants and the lack of proper supervision and accountability in combat, put sometimes intolerable pressures on our younger men who, in many cases, were not adequately trained or morally and psychologically prepared. As a professional sailor, I was prepared to go wherever I was sent. However, like many others, I was totally unprepared for the sights and conduct of our war.
Previous to my posting to the Australian navy’s helicopter flight, I had expected to go to war wearing a Royal Australian Navy uniform, in a Royal Australian Navy warship, and make war on other warships. Of course that was naive, but I never expected, nor was I trained, to make war up close and personal on men, and sometimes women. I know that has taken a toll.
Warrant Officer Robert Anders, pilot, (U.S. 135th AHC, June 1968 to July 1969): On that Saturday, May 31, 1969, we were supporting the 9th Division of the ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] with leapfrogging insertions. The Slicks had been busy all day, while the gunships took turns—two at a time, covering the insertions. Captain Mike Phillips’s crew and mine were at Ben Tre rearming and refueling when we heard that the Slicks were taking fire while dropping off troops at the LZ. Phillips and I immediately cranked up and beat feet to the operations area. It was mass confusion there. By the time Mike was set up on his run, most of the VC were in the tree line firing up at us. But there was this one who appeared determined to take on a Charlie Model gunship all by himself. He stopped, turned, and began firing directly at Mike. I cannot say if Phillips was hit, but the aircraft flew straight into the ground, taking out the one standing VC.
It hit extremely hard on the chin bubble and just seemed to crush flat to the ground at that point. No bounce, just sort of crushed like clay. The fire was a terrific ball that immediately engulfed the entire aircraft. As I orbited the crashed chopper, we watched in disbelief as a figure stood up and walked out through the boiling flames. I rolled around and then, giving myself enough space for a flying approach, I was able to land close to Mike’s chopper. By the time we landed, just moments later, the aircraft and whatever was in it was a burning black heap in a pile. The burning figure, Steve Martin, just walked out of it. He didn’t bump into anything or even climb over anything—there was nothing left. I know that the gunner and crew chief were burned up in the crash, along with Mike. The ammo on Mike’s aircraft was cooking off and exploding, not to mention that there were still a lot of bad guys shooting at us from the tree line.
I was seated in the cockpit on the right as the aircraft captain and I had landed my ship next to the crash on my side. I sent my door gunner out on the left to lay down a covering fire. He had the M-60 going to town with a 100-round belt draped over his shoulder. While the gunner suppressed, the crew chief ran out to Martin, the copilot. His flight suit was completely burned away. Nothing was left of his uniform or his boots except part of his flight helmet and a small band around his waist where there had once been a belt. There were no ears, eyes, hair, or facial features left. When the crew chief removed the remains of Martin’s helmet, he found that the foam liner had melted to his head. Martin appeared to feel no pain.
My copilot and I continued to fire miniguns to keep the enemy’s head down. I even fired off a few rockets from this modified hover. I remember the deafening noise in my helmet, even with the radio headset over my ears. I had all the radios going, the noise of the ammo blowing up, the firing of our weapons, and that damned “Low RPM” warning buzzer going off. Once the crew chief and Martin were on board, I tried bouncing along trying to pick up air speed. It was no use. I could see that we would not clear the tree line, so I set it back down. We had a little bit of an open area behind us, but we could see bad guys all over. We did consider throwing stuff out in order to get light, but then I heard Captain Richard Nesby come on the air.
Nesby had heard one of our calls and came to the rescue. He had been flying a spare Slick to the operations area when all hell broke loose. He landed and we transferred Martin to his ship, an empty UH-1H model, then we followed him out, putting fire all underneath him until we both cleared the tree line.
Nesby made a beeline for the dust-off pad at the U.S. 9th Infantry Division’s MASH unit at Dong Tam, and I returned to the rearm and refuel point.
In a crash-and-burn fire such as this one, the burns on the skin of a human body are bad enough. But the damage inside will do you in, with the heat from the fire searing the inner tissues of your lungs as you try to breathe. The lung tissues react by generating mucus, which slowly fills the lungs, causing a condition like pneumonia. The medicos at the MASH tried their best, but it was not enough and Martin died.
Speedy: I had my only break of any significance back home in Sydney at the end of May 1969—late in the tour but leaving less time to get maudlin about finally making the big “365.” Actually, it was the big “zero” as everyone, absolutely everyone, counted from 365 back to their last day in country and freedom and home.
You could tell reasonably easily how long a person had left of his tour; it was often emblazoned on a jacket or more often on his steel helmet. “FTA” (F— The Army) generally meant months to go. The best of these was laid out in different colored sandbags on a huge corner bunker at the Bien Hoa U.S. Air Force base—it could be seen for miles.
“FUBIS” was “F— yoU Buddy, I’m Short” and identified anyone with fewer than 100 days to go. In general we ended our flying about a week before we went home; flying longer than that was tempting fate a bit too much. I spent the last few nights in the bunker outside our quarters just to be really safe.